Stealth gameplay is deceptively tricky to pull off. On the surface, "wait for the guard to pass by so the player can progress" might sound pretty straightforward. It takes a very skilled developer to create something that isn't as boring as that formula can very easily become. Successful stealth games like Mark of the Ninja, Dishonored, and the Batman: Arkham games understand that a more proactive approach is required if stealth is to be as exciting as straightforward action. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that Sneaky Bastards could do with taking on board for its new 2D stealth platformer Wildfire. It's an admirable effort full of potential, but it just doesn't find a way to marry its two central concepts in a satisfying or compelling way.
What Is Wildfire's Core Gameplay Loop?
In Wildfire, you play as a nameless villager who's branded as a witch when they develop mysterious fire manipulation powers. Your village is scattered and the villagers are all either taken hostage or missing somewhere in the world. It's your job to travel the world, finding and freeing villagers and avoiding the forces of the presumably dastardly Arch-Duchess along the way. Wildfire is all about its gameplay, so there isn't much of a plot here. There are some nice dialogue exchanges that humanize the guards you encounter, but the characterization isn't exactly deep or complex. You good, they bad, avoid them if you want to live.
There are two cornerstones to Wildfire's gameplay: sneaking and mastery of the elements. The first is relatively straightforward. Think your standard triple-A suite of stealth tools: distraction by whistling, hiding in tall grass, waiting for guards to pass by so you can progress. Things threaten to get interesting when Wildfire introduces fire manipulation early on. By throwing fireballs, you can set fire to flammable objects in the world. This has a palpable effect on the level and makes sneaking through it potentially easier or harder. Later, you'll also gain access to elemental abilities that allow you to manipulate water and earth, among other things.
When this works, Wildfire's interlocking systems are a joy to behold. Set fire to a bridge and watch a guard either flee from the burning wreckage or fall helplessly to the floor below. It's not just you and your elements that can manipulate the world, either. If a guard spots you in grass, they'll cut the grass down where they think you're sitting. These systems make the world feel reactive and compelling. It's a shame that many of the elemental abilities are fairly standard platforming tools - use water bubbles to float, double-jump with fireballs - but when they're working in tandem with the stealth, Wildfire shines.
How Does Wildfire Make Stealth And Physics Work?
Unfortunately, Wildfire too often feels like two games vying for a place at the top. On the one hand, there's the slow, methodical stealth game encapsulated by sneaking through the grass and waiting. On the other hand, there's the gleeful physics sandbox that encourages chaos and necessitates experimentation. The two styles simply don't work well together, which creates a disjunct. Being methodical with your sneaking means you won't want to experiment because you'll waste your chance to be unseen for the whole level. Similarly, if you sprint through the level burning everything in sight, you're not exactly one with the shadows.
That sense of a disconnect isn't helped by extremely stingy level design and gameplay. Fire sources are very hard to come by, but objectives routinely require you to use them to progress. This means you're far less likely to want to experiment with fire throughout the level when you know you need it for later. It's unspeakably frustrating to yell in delight when burning down a bridge a guard is trying to pass, only to realize you needed that fire to progress through the level. Wildfire never quite soft-locks you out of progress, but it all too often fails to tell you that you're going to be backtracking a lot if you use a fire source in a certain way.
This is alleviated somewhat by the fact that Wildfire is largely designed around co-op. The second player is effectively nonexistent in cutscenes, but Wildfire's intricacies do become slightly more fun with a partner. Distracting guards with fire so your partner can grow a vine to climb or soar towards the skies in a bubble is great fun. Unfortunately, this delight does wear thin as Wildfire's repetition starts to show. All players will eventually move towards the solution that accomplishes their task most efficiently. This means that for all of Wildfire's physics trickery, there are few solutions more effective than just waiting in a bush and moving forward, red-light-green-light style. That's true even if you bring a partner along.
What Is Level Design Like In Wildfire?
The visual style of Wildfire may be its most appealing aspect. It's got a very early-90s PC platformer vibe reminiscent of Commander Keen or the 2D Duke Nukem games. The sprites and level design are both fine, but the most appealing part of Wildfire is its element physics. Fire crackles and hisses, water splashes satisfyingly when you leap into it, and the earth bends to your will. When Wildfire's levels are good, watching fire spread across wood or grass is rewarding. Sadly, Wildfire's levels are rarely good, as nice as they may look.
There's an incredibly frustrating trial-and-error feel to Wildfire's gameplay that prevents either the stealth or the elemental physics from being consistently fun. More than once, I'd get halfway through a level only to realize I needed something from the beginning or couldn't progress any further. At that point, I'd restart the stage or reload a checkpoint, muttering darkly. I'd pass the point I'd reached, then hit another blockade. Wildfire's lack of generosity extends to its level design as well as its gameplay. It wants its levels to be sandboxes, but they're actually rarely non-linear. They just look sprawling because there's so much space in them.
Despite Wildfire's pretenses of offering several different distinct worlds, repetition sets in quickly, even if it does have varied objectives. You'll be putting ancestral bones to rest in one level and trying to stop an explosion in another. Nevertheless, the samey, boxy level geometry never becomes interesting to look at. As a result, each level just elicited a groan instead of gleeful anticipation. Wildfire is pretending towards retro tribute, but that shouldn't be an excuse for a game that is simply as boring to look at as it often is to play.
Does The Stealth Work In Wildfire?
Perhaps the final nail in Wildfire's coffin is the fact that the stealth gameplay isn't very fun. Since the elemental physics and interactions aren't strong enough or frequently-used enough to carry the experience, the stealth really needs to step up, and it doesn't do that. Guards have laughably bad AI, immediately forgetting where you were just moments ago if you jump up to a slightly higher ledge. They still manage to be a nuisance, though, because once you've been spotted you cannot move past a guard if you're on the same level they are. That leads to frustrating situations in which you're effectively soft-locked, backed into a corner, and unable to escape.
This aspect unfortunately works in tandem with the trial-and-error level design. Sometimes progress through a level is impossible because you don't have access to the right element. At other times, it's because the guards have blocked you in. Occasionally it's because you physically can't reach where you need to go from your current position and need to backtrack. Whatever the cause, making your way through Wildfire is more often a frustrating, inconsistent grind than it is an intrepid journey across forests and caves.
Wildfire is lacking in the masterful design necessary to make a puzzle-platformer work. Its occasional moments of immersive sim-style level design glimmer with potential, but its traversal is cumbersome and its stealth is monotonous. Using the elements never feels as fun as it should because the controls feel far too clunky and fiddly. Similarly, the stealth lacks the momentum of stablemates like Mark of the Ninja or Gunpoint. As such, Wildfire comes across as a game lacking an identity, despite how hard it's trying to claim one of its own.
Wildfire Review | Final Thoughts
It's a shame that Wildfire can't execute on its promises, because they're very lofty promises indeed. The idea of a stealth sandbox in which you manipulate the elements to outfox your opponents is a very compelling one. Sadly, this isn't that game. It's bogged down by bad level design, frustratingly slow trial-and-error gameplay, and a poor marriage between its core concepts. There are flashes of brilliance. Sometimes, Wildfire's sandbox approach pays dividends in the form of multiple rewarding pathways through levels and clever ways to dispatch guards. For the most part, however, Wildfire fades away rather than burning brightly.
TechRaptor reviewed Wildfire on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC via GOG and Humble
- Nice Retro Aesthetic
- Great Fire Physics
- Occasional Moments Of Brilliance
- Frustrating Trial-And-Error Gameplay
- Tedious, Slow Stealth
- Poor Interaction Between Systems